I don’t like unreliable narrators.
I prefer my fiction much more honest and straightforward, yet read with the complete understanding that at the heart of all good fiction–complex fiction–is a mystery the reader must solve:
What is this novel really all about?
And that is the reader’s objective with Paul Tremblay’s new novel, A Head Full of Ghosts. Superficially, this is a reminiscence by the youngest member of the Barrett household, Merry. Now 23, she’s being interviewed about the “supernatural” events that happened in her home fifteen years beforehand; and she’s also blogging about the reality show that was broadcast at the time that chronicled those events, and which starred her family.
Her older sister, Marjorie, they claimed, had been possessed. Spiritual advisers were contacted, and an exorcism was performed–all on digital film and beamed into homes across the world, showing exactly how this family came to be broken by forces unknown.
But Merry is telling this story, in two distinct voices, and not one of those voices is entirely reliable. Seen through eight-year old eyes, with details lost and forgotten over the course of a decade and a half, Merry may not be telling the story as it really happened. And we don’t know if she’s forgotten parts, repressed parts, or never truly understood what was going on in her house all those years ago.
What is this story really all about?
Consider this a clue: Merry is asked by an interviewer, in the early pages of A Head Full of Ghosts, “Why don’t you start by telling me about Marjorie and what she was like before everything happened?”
And Merry explains “. . . . there never was a before everything happened.
A possession story is a ghost story; and all truly good ghost stories can be interpreted in two ways: Everything that happens in this story is in no way supernatural; and Yes, this story really is about a ghost. It’s the ambivalence between the two, a fine balance, that keeps readers on the edge. That’s why three classic ghost stories–among so many others–are still being read and interpreted even to this day: The Turn of the Screw, The Haunting of Hill House, and A Christmas Carol.
The truths of life in the Barrett household probably began before Merry turned four, and Marjorie was ten. That was when her parents started attending “Marriage Encounters.” . . . Which means the true beginning was even earlier than that.
Now, Merry is eight. Mom is smoking and drinking way too much. Dad is praying a lot and spending a lot of time with church elders. Merry needs a lot of attention from everyone else. And Marjorie is showing signs of some seriously disturbed behavior.
A Head Full of Ghosts is really a story of a family in denial. Most families would look at themselves in a strange situation such as this and say, “Something is broken here.” But this family has something SERIOUSLY WRONG with it, and they can’t deal with the facts. They hide from the truth. So, of course, the root of the problem is the disturbed daughter, isn’t it? She must be possessed, Dad says, aided and abetted by the exorcist he brings over one night. And because the family is in dire financial straits, Dad decides to sell the Possessed-daughter-needs-exorcism story to a reality show producer.
It must be real. Like Jack Torrance says on the road to the Overlook, “See? It’s okay. He saw it on the television.”
And such is the flow of this sordid tale, told through unreliable narrators, unreliable cameras, unreliable beliefs, and unreliable memories. It’s story within story, and each story hides the truth like a series of nesting dolls, until we finally come to the tiny doll deep at the core of the nest.
The core here is still a secret as we come to the final page, the final passage, where “. . . it’s cold enough that my breath is a visible mist.”
I could be wrong, but I look at that as a clue.
The invisible truth is in the story. You just have to make it visible.
So you can read this as a ghost story. As a reader, that’s your prerogative.
That’s the visible story.
What’s the invisible story?
What broke this family apart?
What caused the older daughter to break down and need psychiatric help?
Why was Mom always so angry?
Why did Dad turn to religion?
The clues are between the lines, making A Head Full of Ghosts a fine psychological thriller instead of a traditional, supernatural horror story. Tremblay handles the storytelling superbly, keeping the reader on the edge of reality and the supernatural, yet always subtly nudging the reader to open their eyes and accept that Something is wrong with the Barrett’s story. Ghost story or psychological story? That’s entirely up to you.